The smell of sweat and blood wafted in through the window and hung oppressively in the air. So had Lord Ferula casually commented to himself just before his death. Before going to hide behind a pillar near the door, his assassin removed the knife from the back of his neck and arranged his body to look like he was relaxing in his large cushioned chair. His second-in-command, the jail master, had left the room just a few moments ago, promising to return soon. The assassin waited only a few minutes. The man entered the room, saw nothing amiss with his superior, and closed the door for secrecy. The assassin lunged out from behind the pillar just as he passed and planted the knife between his shoulder blades.
The man stumbled forward, pulling free of the knife. The assassin growled in frustration, for while the wound would prove fatal without proper treatment, the man wasn’t dead yet.
“You!” the man hissed with a voice strangled by pain.
“Me,” said the assassin in a cool, soft voice.
The man pulled out his sword and swung, but it was parried by the assassin’s mace. After a few more attempted blows, the job was finished. The innards of the man’s head oozed through his shattered scull and stained the embroidered rug. The assassin took a ring of keys from the man’s belt, hid his body out-of-site beneath Lord Ferula’s desk, rolled the rug up to place it in the corner, and left cautiously through the small window.
Crawling unseen among the rocks on a moonless night was easy for someone who’d done so many times before. The assassin slithered quietly up to the rocks near the entrance of the compound, took out a dull piece of glass, and moved it around to catch the dim torchlight. Only one who was on the lookout for it would notice such a dull twinkle; the pair of guards who stood at the stone door continued laughing loudly at some private joke.
Another twinkle appeared on the far side of the guards. Then another from another place. And another. Six total appeared. Satisfied, the assassin signaled again, waited exactly thirteen seconds, and lunged. Nineteen other figures poured onto the guards, killing one before he noticed anything out of the ordinary. The other put up a short fight.
The group of twenty dropped to the ground. There were no nearby sounds, and the distant ones were only the usual: a conversation, some coarse laughter, the crash of pickaxes against stone, grunts of physical stress, a yelp of pain. The lead assassin stood up and slunk off as the others took their places around the area.
“Keep working. Act as usual. Run for the front gate when the time is right.” So the assassin whispered nearly one hundred times upon unlocking the manacles of nearly one hundred people who toiled in the quarry.
Two more guards met their fate in the dungeons. Another one hundred people crowded against the bars upon hearing the sounds of combat. They were in awed silence.
“Emapyn?” a quiet raspy voice asked from behind the crowd. The assassin hurriedly opened the cell from which the voice had come, shoved past the prisoners, and knelt by an old man who was lying on the cold stone floor. “There you are, dear girl.” The old man reached up slowly, laid his hand upon her short dark blue hair, and pulled her down to kiss her forehead.
“Didacus, I…” she began.
“How goes your mission?”
“Then do not mourn my loss, and above all, do not allow me to burden you. This is only the beginning. Remember everything…” The old man’s voice faltered. “…everything I’ve… taught you.”
“Didacus…. Thank you.”
The old man’s breath stopped. After allowing herself a quick moment to drop a pair of tears onto his chest, the assassin stood and shoved through the crowd again. They unlocked the other three cells and gestured to the prisoners to follow her.
“Are you okay, Pyn?” a limping young man a bit older than she asked her quietly.
“I’m fine,” she answered. After glancing cautiously out the door of the dungeons, she sprinted outward screaming, “Go! Go! Now is our time for freedom!”
The prisoners and the slaves at the rocks mixed like buckets of water thrown in unison toward the front gates. The guards on duty all made an attempt to curb the tide, only to be washed away by the current. Pyn’s nineteen chosen ushered everyone through the gates, save one who was busy releasing all the horses from the stables.
Pyn herself was the last one out. She stood in the door and looked behind to make sure there were no stragglers before bowing to any of the guards were still awake to see her. Then she walked calmly away, surrounded by panicked horses.
* * *
“Fools,” the limping young man muttered. “Ungrateful fools, all of them.”
“Easy, Rudo,” Pyn said. “Let them go. I did not free them for my own sake.”
The last of the deserters disappeared among the trees, many taking horses with them. Ten of the nineteen who had helped Pyn release the other prisoners had been killed by the persistent enemy over the last two days of flight. The other nine and Rudo were still with her. The adults of the group, abhorrent to trust their lives to the leadership of a twelve-year-old girl, even one who had braved the dangers to release them, had taken their children and departed. Nine young orphans had stayed behind, once again leaving Pyn’s group at an even twenty.
Pyn had her eyes closed in thought while lying back on a large flat rock in the forest. The rock wasn’t level; her head was closer to the ground than her feet. Yes, she thought to herself. This is good. She opened her eyes and saw Rudo looking down at her worriedly. Looking closely, she could tell that he was not looking into her eyes but following a jagged line across her face. The line was the boundary between her normal skin and the shiny pink flesh covering the right half of her forehead down to part of her right cheek. While her left eye was the same sky blue it had been when she was born, the iris of the eye surrounded by pink flesh was a silvery white.
To distract herself from his attention, she crossed her arms over her chest and began doing sit-ups.
“But for them to treat you like that…” Rudo persisted.
“We’re better off without them anyway,” Pyn countered. “It’s much easier to make a small group go unnoticed than a large one. And if they can bring one hundred and eighty corpses back to Lord Ferula’s replacement, they’ll be a little more willing to let twenty slip through their fingers.”
Rudo seemed a little surprised by her ruthless words, but by now he knew better than to try to predict her words or actions. Pyn lay back to look over her group upside-down. Even more than before, most of them were younger than she. There was a four-year-old, and five more looked younger than seven years. The nine who had tried their hands at being warriors were all over ten, and Rudo was the oldest at fourteen. They had not been able to keep any of the horses, but they did get a pair of ponies.
Pyn sat up and pointed straight out to her right suddenly enough to make everyone around her jump in start. “That way. We go that way in five minutes. Rest up.” She took her own advice and lay back down. Four minutes later, the young and the tired were piled on the ponies, and the march directly northward began.
“P-Pyn?” asked the four-year-old girl on the white pony.
Pyn looked at her.
“Why we go this way instead of where grown-ups go?” the girl asked meekly.
“This way is less dangerous.”
Pyn showed no sign of changing her mind as she led her herd over high ground with loose rocks on which the ponies stumbled or across a river where some of the smaller children were nearly washed away. By the fifth night since their freedom, they were tired, scratched, and bruised but had no serious injuries. They stopped for the night in a cave in the mountains, but when everyone else settled down to sleep, Pyn remained standing at the entrance.
Rudo awoke in the middle of the night. When he sat up, wondering what had disturbed him, he noticed Pyn was no longer at the entrance. He quickly counted everyone else in the cave and determined that only she was missing. He stood and walked outside where he saw her silhouetted against the sky. She was right at the edge of a gorge, and though Rudo was certain she must hear his shuffling uneven gait, she did not turn around. He heard noises coming up from the gorge, with the only sound of nature being the roar of the river.
Rudo pictured a map in his head and remembered that the gorge was the route that about a hundred of the escapees wanted to take as opposed to following Pyn. Looking down, he saw them surrounded by their captors’ soldiers, being herded roughly south, back toward the quarry.
Finally finding his voice, Rudo asked, “Why don’t they jump into the river?”
“None of the children can swim, and few of the adults can,” Pyn answered matter-of-factly. “So long as they remain alive—and no more able-bodied slaves will be killed than necessary—they have a chance to be free. Nonetheless, some have chosen to brave the river. The river flows back south, but it’s better than capture.”
“You sound… so impersonal.”
“Should I sound differently?”
“Well….” Rudo fidgeted. “Don’t you care that so many people are getting killed or recaptured?”
“It’s quite regrettable,” Pyn said, “but there’s nothing I can do about it. So long as they followed me, it would be my duty to protect them. But now they’re none of my concern.” She continued watching the spectacle calmly.
Rudo couldn’t think of anything else to say on this subject, so he said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, Pyn; where are you from?”
Pyn blinked, then frowned at him. “What?”
“Where are you from?” Rudo repeated. Pyn still looked uncharacteristically startled. “As in, where were you born? Where did you live before you became a slave in the quarry?”
“Oh,” Pyn mumbled, looking back down toward the river. “I was… um, from some little town. Hardly deserved having a name.”
“Hmm, I just noticed you speak so formally.”
“Well, we should probably get to sleep now. Speaking of origins, Berk was a hunter’s son. I’m going to talk to him about a food supply containing something other than weeds.”
Indeed, by the time everyone else began waking up, she was already listening intently to Berk as he rambled excitedly on about hunting, tracking, forestry, and anything else he thought might be remotely helpful. The group moved on early, and by nightfall, a single partridge had been captured and split among the youngest.
Once again, Pyn did not go to sleep with everyone else. She climbed into a tall tree, apparently for the sake of looking around. However, after she had taken in all the sights, she sat down on a branch and leaned back. There, hanging upside down with her head ten feet off the ground, she slept. She seemed to sleep rather well, which could not be said for all of her companions.
“Pyn?” one girl asked uncomfortably when she awoke from a dream-torn sleep at sunrise.
Pyn, still hanging, opened her eyes and met the girl’s gaze.
“W-why are you hanging like that?”
“Does it bother you?”
“N—yes. I mean, no. No,” the girl stammered, “but weren’t you one, one of the arbor children, Pyn?”
“Yes,” Pyn said calmly. “I was.”
The girl started to speak again, but then resigned to shaking her head as Pyn came back to the ground.
“Hey, she did all those push-ups with that old man all the time, remember?” a boy whispered to the girl. “She just seems to like pain.” The girl nodded reluctantly.
“So, Pyn,” an older young man asked. “Where are we going?”
“Away,” said Pyn.
“Still?” someone else asked. “Aren’t we far enough a way yet that we can decide a destination? We can’t just go away forever, can we?”
“Of course not. There’re only so many places to hide in the world,” Pyn mumbled.
“What’s that? I didn’t hear you.”
“I said of
course not, but my knowledge of geography is three-years-old, and for all I
know, every city I’ve ever heard of has been destroyed or occupied in the last
three years.” Pyn shrugged. “But I do believe I’ve heard our guards speaking of
the port city
“Are you sure you want to?”
“Eh—uh….” Rudo frowned, caught off-guard by her question.
again. “Yes, I believe we should be able to reach